The Eclipse Party: A Short Story by Katherine Cowley {0}

In honor of today’s solar eclipse, I gave myself the writing challenge of creating a story about the eclipse in one weekend. The result is a short story about a woman whose granddaughters force her to attend a rather unusual eclipse party.

The Eclipse Party

The Eclipse Party

Except for a poky rim around the edge that Marisel’s granddaughters insisted represented the sun’s corona, the cookie had been painted black and practically dipped in black sprinkles. Marisel disliked sprinkles of any type and never used black frosting (it was hard to convince your mind that black food was not mold) but she forced the cookie into her mouth and swallowed.

Sophie gave her an approving smile. The nine-year-old had done most of the planning for this party, and for the last thirty minutes had ushered Marisel from one bizarre activity to the next.

Lu, age seven, twirled in a circle, unable to stand still. “Did you know,” she said, half a cookie shoved in her mouth, “that an eclipse is something eating the sun?” Black sprinkles stuck to her chin. “Did you know that there is a demon named Rahu, and Vishnu cut off his head, and sometimes he eats the sun, but since his head was cut off, when he swallows the sun it falls out the bottom of his head?”

“I…did not know that,” managed Marisel.

“It’s actually just a legend,” said Sophie authoritatively. “What’s really happening is the moon is passing in front of the sun.”

Lu grabbed Marisel’s hand with her sticky fingers and they checked the pinhole projector again. “Not yet!” Lu declared. “Remember, grandma, don’t look at the sun until it’s completely covered.”

Sophie approached with a shoe box that had been scribbled black with a permanent marker. “This is the most important thing you’ll do today,” she said dramatically. “Take a piece of paper and a pen. You need to write down something that’s been bothering you. It should be something that’s hard for you. When you finish, you’re going to put it in the box, and when the eclipse happens you are going to let it go.”

Both her granddaughters quickly wrote something on their slips, but Marisel twirled her pen in her fingers. Her husband, Daniel, would’ve come up with something clever, she thought wistfully. And maybe she would’ve too, once. After a few minutes she managed to write, “Getting stressed when I lose the matches to socks.”

Lu and Sophie dragged her to the next activity, which was properly positioning their homemade black sugar crystals—why did they have to choose black?—so they could capture the positive energy from the sun’s return. Then they carefully poured water into a mason jar. Once again, it was supposed to capture positive energy, so then little sips could be drunk later, on days when you most needed it.

“Now you need to stir this water seventy times,” said Sophie, handing her a wooden popsicle stick. “Clockwise. We’ll be right back.”

Marisel stirred but didn’t bother to count. She sighed and shot a glance at her daughter-in-law. She was the type to let her kids indulge in this sort of mystical nonsense. Marisel would’ve said something to her about it, but there was a chance her granddaughters would hear, and she didn’t want to spoil their party for them. She would have to talk to her daughter-in-law about it later.

She had just finished stirring the water what must be about seventy times when her granddaughters returned with the black shoe box. They both looked upset, though she couldn’t tell if it was at each other or at her.

“You wrote the wrong thing on your paper, grandma,” said Sophie. “This was serious. It wasn’t supposed to be about socks.”

Marisel had been right. She should’ve tried to come up with something clever.

“I wrote the right answer for you,” said Lu, holding up the paper.

Sophie tried to grab it from her younger sister. “But it might not work now,” she said. “Grandma has to want to let it go, or it won’t work.”

They bickered, fighting over the paper, until Marisel reached out her hand and said, “Give it to me, girls.”

Heads bowed, they handed her the paper.

Marisel unfolded it. Lu had crossed out her statement about socks, and, in the handwriting of a seven-year-old, written, “stop being sad about Granpa Daniel.”

Marisel swallowed and blinked away the moisture in her eyes. They were wrong—she did not need to let her sorrow go. Yes, it had been two years, and she’d accepted her husband’s death, but the loss was a constant part of her, as it should be.

“You’re not as fun as you used to be,” said Lu.

“That’s not nice,” said Sophie, shooting a dirty look at her sister. “Mom says that you won’t let yourself move on and enjoy things, and that it’s hurting you. And Dad says it will just take more time. But I don’t want it to take more time. I want you to be you again.”

“We miss grandpa too,” said Lu.

Marisel stood there, numb, unsure of what to say, or how to process their accusations. What did they mean she wasn’t herself anymore? She always took days off to do fun things with them, attend their performances and field trips. She looked at her watch. Maybe, today, she should’ve stayed at work. She was running low on vacation days, and she had a project due tomorrow that she’d have to stay up late tonight finishing.

“It’s almost time, girls,” her daughter-in-law called.

Lu grabbed the paper out of Marisel’s hand and shoved it in the black box. Both girls scampered over to the pinhole projector.

Marisel stood there, slid her wedding ring in a circle around her finger, vaguely aware of her granddaughters exclaiming as the moon covered more and more of the sun. She’d tried to move forward, she really had. She’d even met once with a therapist who specialized in grief. But it was too much sometimes to act like everything was okay, too hard to keep pretending.

Suddenly her granddaughters were screaming. It was dark and the air around her was cold, as if a vacuum had sucked all the warmth and light out of the sky.

Lu danced up to her and pointed her hand. “Mom says you can look at the sun now!”

And so Marisel looked, tilting her head upward and for the first time in her life staring straight at the sun.

The sun was black—blacker than the cookies, an unnatural blackness, an absence, a dark beast with light tendrils reaching out from its edges, trying to consume her.

The moon had blotted out the sun, blotted it out completely. And yes, you could see some stars, but she did not want to see the stars—it was supposed to be day. Daniel had died too young, it had not been expected, they still had so many plans for things they wanted to do, trips they wanted to take, experiences they should’ve had, if they had been robbed from her like the light from the sky.

Marisel wanted to look away from what was missing in the sky, but she could not. The eclipse would swallow her whole, and for a moment she believed the legends, believed that it could be a bad omen. It was unreal, impossible to comprehend, just as she still could not comprehend her own loss, still could not move forward.

Sophie pushed a pan and a wooden spoon into her hands. “We have to scare the moon away! We have to bring the sun back, or it’ll stay dark forever!”

Sophie and Lu and even her daughter-in-law started banging their pans as loud as they could, yelling, “Release the sun!”

Marisel banged the pan half-heartedly at first, but then started hitting it with all her might. “Release the sun! Release the sun! Release the sun!” she shouted with them, tears running down her face.

And then, in an instant, the sky lightened.

“Everyone look at the ground,” her daughter-in-law directed. “Right now, so you don’t go blind.”

Marisel forced her eyes away from the sky, to the ground. There was no need to look up anyways, not anymore, for the light had come back like a flash, as if it had never been dark in the middle of the day, as if the eclipse were a distant memory and not something she’d just experienced.

“Did it work? Did it work?” Lu shouted, holding up the black shoe box.

Marisel didn’t know if she’d really let go, or if she ever could completely, but something in her had released, had fled as the sun had returned. There had been darkness, there had been cold, but now there was light and warmth and maybe a bit more possibility.

She set down her pan and her wooden spoon and smiled at her granddaughters. And for the first time in a long time, there was nothing forced about the upward curve of her lips. She pulled them into a hug and held them until they squirmed.

“I think it worked,” she said. “Now can I try one of your sugar crystals? Or are we supposed to wait until later?”

“We can eat them now!” the girls declared and ran to get them.

Marisel sucked on her black sugar crystal. To her surprise, despite the color, it tasted good. Maybe the sun really had given it some positive energy.

Love and Chicken Tenders: A Review of Tender Wings of Desire {0}

Have you ever sat there, eating KFC while you fantasize about Colonel Sanders, the founder and creator of such beautiful chicken?

Well if you haven’t, you are missing out. Kentucky Fried Chicken has decided to solve this problem by giving a new book to the world as a free gift for Mother’s Day.

The novella is called Tender Wings of Desire, and it even has a picture of a ripped Colonel Sanders and Kentucky Fried Chicken on the cover.

Tender Wings of Desire

Yes, I am dead serious. This really exists.

I downloaded the book for free on Amazon this morning and thought, “This sounds funny. I’ll just read the first few pages.” But no. I read the whole thing in one sitting.

The dedication certainly helped: “For mothers everywhere, I dedicate this to you—a brief escape from motherhood into the arms of your fantasy Colonel. Whoever he may be.”

Obviously, your fantasy Colonel should be a fried chicken magnate.

The story starts with Madeline, a fine Victorian lady who is engaged, against her will, to a Duke who she thinks “looks like a vanilla biscuit.” (Yes—the cover of the book shows looks like a steamy modern romance, and shows a normal woman in the arms of a modern Colonel. But to me, that’s part of the thrill—why not have modern people on the cover of a historical romance? You can use the best of all romance novels. We can all fantasize about the Colonel however we want.)

Madeline feels no passion for her betrothed duke, so the night before her wedding, she runs away to a romantic coastal town with cliffs—beautiful, frightening cliffs—to become a barmaid. And of course there she meets—and is swept off her feet—by the one and only Colonel Sanders. Add a few barriers in the way of their romance, and you have a thrilling romance.

The novella is a touch steamy (such passion!), though only kisses are shown on the page and everything else is left implied.

And now, for my favorite quote:

“Madeline’s heart was pounding so heavily in her chest that she did not think she would be able to breathe; perhaps she would die like this. It would be terribly romantic, would it not? To be killed by such a longing.”

 

The story does not take itself seriously (you were warned by the cover and the title!), and yet it still manages to tell a very solid romance.

And of course, the Amazon reviewers don’t take the story completely seriously either (and are actually less appropriate than the book itself). Here are two of my favorites:

KFC

Now what are you waiting for? Go download your free book Or better yet, give it to your mom for Mother’s Day.

Why I Love Receiving Rejections {0}

Why I Love Receiving Rejections
Rejections and failures are a huge part of life in general. And if you’re a writer, you get them all the time. I’ve gotten three rejections so far this week–and this actually makes me really happy.
 
Right now, I’m in the process of submitting a novel, a graphic novel script, and three short stories for publication. I’m also revising a personal essay to submit to a competition next week, and revising a play to submit to a ten-minute playwriting festival.
 
If I have that many things in my submission queue, it means that I’m getting a lot of rejections. A few of my short stories have been published the first time I’ve submitted them; most of them I’ve had to submit four or five times until I’ve found the right home for them. And some of my polished stories have never found homes, despite my best efforts.  
 
Over time, I’ve developed a bit of a thick skin (thank you, grad school). But really, rejection is not failure. Rejection means I’m trying, I’m putting myself out there–I’m taking big risks. Rejection means that I’m challenging myself, I’m putting in the mandatory effort. Sometimes a rejection means that my writing wasn’t good enough, or used a cliched trope. Sometimes they recently published something too similar. And sometimes the writing is great, but they don’t love it–it’s not a match for them (publishing is like dating–two awesome people do not always make an awesome couple).
 
Two of the rejections I received this week are what is called a “form letter,” basically a “Dear Author, your story was not what we were looking for. Good luck.” In one of the form letters I got this week, it literally said “Dear Author”–and I can’t blame them, as editors and agents often have hundreds of submissions to read in a day.
 
Another rejection I received was personalized. They said my short story was well-written, and then said specifically why it isn’t a match for their magazine (they prefer stories where the fantasy element is more integral to the plot rather than the background). And then they said, “we would be happy to see more from you in the future.” This is the second, very personalized rejection letter I’ve received for the story, and I get the feeling that it’s catching attention, and that it will find a home, as long as I don’t give up, as long as I keep at it.
To me, rejections aren’t an invitation to give up. They’re a sign that I’m going somewhere.

Writing 2016: A Year in Photos {0}

New BabyI set my writing goals lower this year because of having a new baby. But I am proud to report that I still can write with three young children.

My Writing Goal for 2016 = 400 hours

Actual Time I Spent Writing in 2016 = 530 hours

That’s almost 1.5 hours per day. For comparison, I wrote 600 hours in 2015 and 520 hours in 2014.

One of the most common questions I get is How do you find time to write with three kids? I think an equally appropriate question would be, How does anyone with three kids find time to eat or shower or exercise? Or, equally appropriate, How does anyone with a full-time job find time to write?

I think you can treat something creative like just as much of a necessity in your life as eating, you can create good habits, you can train yourself to use small amounts of time and moments of low-energy to create. And if you really want it, you can cut out other things. I used to read over 75 novels a year, and while I still read a lot, I don’t read nearly as many now. I cut out my favorite TV shows. All of them. I sacrifice things that I want and that I love every single day that I write. I wasn’t always ready or willing to make that sort of sacrifice and commitment, but for the past three years I have been.

How did I spend those 530 hours of writing time?

Caught Writing (Photograph by my daughter)I revised my steampunk novel, completing several more drafts of it. Near the end of the year it hit the point where it was as finished as I can make it. So I am now submitting.

I also wrote and revised a graphic novel script, based off a novella I wrote several years ago. I love graphic novels, and I loved learning how to write in the form, something that was made much easier by doing a Media Arts/Film minor in college.

I also guest edited the 5th Annual Mormon Lit Blitz, a contest for LDS micro-literature (fiction, essays, and poetry, all under 1000 words). I did contest promotion (including guest blogging), was one of three judges for over one hundred entries, helped edit the selected finalists, and ran the voting. It was a lot of work, but worth it. I also enjoyed trying on an editor’s hat for a competition I’ve been involved in as a writer.

The 2016 Mormon Lit Blitz

365 TomorrowsShort Fiction

My flash fiction story, “Misunderstood,” was published in 365 Tomorrows.

I didn’t write as many short stories this year–I wrote two new short stories and revised two other short stories. And because I wasn’t writing as many short stories, I wasn’t submitting as many–but I did submit.

Over the course of the year, I received eight rejections and two acceptances. One of those acceptances was for “Misunderstood.” The other was for…

The Last BathroomThe Last Bathroom,” which was published in the humor magazine Defenestration.

I sometimes write really weird stuff, like genre-bending stories featuring superheroes visiting all the bathrooms in the city during the apocalypse. So I was really happy to find the perfect home for this piece.

Interrupting all of my writing was a cross-country move, from Phoenix, Arizona to Kalamazoo, Michigan. The picture is of everything we own, stuffed into a moving truck.

img_6514-large

I was sad to say goodbye to a lot of really good writing friends in Arizona, and several critique groups.

A Critique Group

In my critique group named “WeeWa” we even figured out how to use a selfie stick.

Our new rental in Michigan has a basement–so I claimed part of it as my own and created a writing corner.

My Writing Corner, Pre-Flood

Isn’t that just beautiful? The steampunk poster that reads “On to the Next Chapter” was hand painted by my friend Dena Haynes, who is both an incredible writer and artist.

Unfortunately, ten days after I finished making my writing corner look beautiful, our basement flooded. Water poured through the air ventilation system, which is not waterproof, so it basically rained throughout our entire basement.

My Ruined Writing Space

Yes, those are waterlogged ceiling tiles that used to be above the desk.

I was kind of heartbroken by the damage to my beautiful space. I kind of still am, in fact. I’m also heartbroken by the fact that all of my old drafts for my different projects, with all my beautiful, hand-written notes on them, were ruined. I do have each completed draft digitally, and my twelve foot outline for my steampunk novel survived. My writing posters did not get a drop of water on them–hallelujah.

The owner of the house is still working with the insurance company, and theoretically the basement will be fixed soon. (It’s been over two months, and as a writer I am always wary of ambiguous words like “soon.”) My husband still works downstairs in the evening, but I haven’t written a word downstairs since the flood.

However, I have still written.

Portrait of me working on my computer, taken without my awareness, probably by my 5-year-old daughter.

Portrait of me working on my computer, taken without my awareness, probably by my 5-year-old daughter.

I did a lot of critiques this year–I critiqued at least ten full novels, a bunch of essays, and other miscellaneous things that needed a bit of love. I like critiquing because it keeps me fresh and focused and helps me in viewing my own work in a critical light.

I also edited a fashion textbook–both with a content and copy edit. Afterwards, the fashion consultant author took me shopping, and I now know how to buy jeans that truly fit me. (I spent so many years not knowing what I was missing–seriously, my life has been changed.)

And I spent at least fifty hours (which was not counted in my total writing hours) doing a data coding project to help my husband out on his dissertation.

But that is not all!

 

Katherine Cowley Presenting at Time Out for Writers

I presented on “Writing Powerful Story Beats” during the online LDS Beta Readers conference–you can watch the video on youtube. And in September I taught two classes at the “Time Out for Writers” conference in Phoenix (one class was on Optimizing Your Author Website and the other was on Worldbuilding).

And that, folks, is my writing year. I have great writing plans for 2017.

10 Questions for Avoiding Deus ex Machina in Fantasy and Science Fiction {0}

10 Questions for Avoiding Deus ex Machina in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Helios in his chariot, 4th century BC, Athena’s Temple in Ilion. Image credit: Gryffindor (public domain)

Deus ex machina literally means “God in the machine.” My first introduction to it was as a 15 year old reading the Greek tragedy Medea. Medea kills her children, but is saved, at the last moment, by the sun god sending down a chariot to take her away. The Greeks would actually use a crane to lower someone or something onto the stage to save the day.

Jeff Vandermeer, in Wonderbook writes: “The very thing that readers love about fantasy, for example, can backfire… Fantasy writers may also feel some pressure to ‘get out of jail free’ by using the fantasy element to create closure when it hasn’t been earned by the characters or events in the story. Because everything is possible, nothing has any tension…or any weight. The bit of magic that resolves things too easily or the singular invention or the sudden rescue—there are parallels in contemporary realism, but they don’t stand out quite so much. There’s nothing like a sudden dragon blasting across the page to signal an unintentional celebration of spectacular coincidence…”

10 Questions for Avoiding Deus Ex Machina in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Is someone solving the problem that is not the main character? Is someone else saving the main character? And does this happen near the end of the book?

Why can’t the main character solve the problem or save herself?

Is the person saving the day an important secondary character? Have you properly foreshadowed their relationship with the main character and the tools that they have to save the day?

Can the main character do something earlier to pave the way for them being saved now?

Can I foreshadow this so it doesn’t feel completely random?

Even while being saved by someone else, can the main character be active—doing something and contributing?

If the main character is being saved now, can she still solve the main conflict of the novel on her own?

Read the rest of my presentation on Rule-Based Worldbuilding